Sunday, July 1, 2007

Review of Where Is the Friend's Home?

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has one of the best reputations on the international art film circuit today, and yet it still feels like his name recognition on the streets of America is absolutely nil. Despite winning a Palme d’Or in 1997, being named the greatest active non-US director by The Guardian in 2006 and getting dubbed the world’s best filmmaker by Werner Herzog (who has indie fan and college campus buzz to spare), Kiarostami couldn’t even get a visa to enter the US for a film festival.

On one hand, it isn’t terribly surprising Kiarostami doesn’t have a huge stateside fandom since his films resonate primarily with the generation of maximally ivory tower middle-aged critics who have the ear of a very select New York intellectual audience. Even middlebrow critics aren’t always enthusiastic. Ebert’s 1-star scathing review of “A Taste of Cherry” (1997), for instance, has been only the first in an ongoing campaign against the director. Kiarostami doesn’t have the obvious youth appeal of Spike Jonze or the provocative headline-earning of Lars Von Trier or the cult virtuosity and wit of the Coen brothers. Instead, he is minimalist and often political. Distribution has been difficult for the director and, of course, he must contend with the middle-America’s generally negative reaction to anything Iranian. None of this adds up to a blockbuster sensation.

My own reactions have been somewhat mixed. “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” (1989) is the fifth film I’ve seen by the director (a small fraction of his total output) and I think I’m finally coming to understand his unique style and simple tales. While not the masterpiece that I considered “A Taste of Cherry” to be, the film is accessibly light and irresistibly winning. It begs to be called poetic and lyrical and hypnotic and full of humanity and all those other descriptors that inadvertently drive movie-renters to set the DVD back on the video store’s shelf and to continue looking for “Torque” (2004) like they originally intended.

I myself am not always that into experimental forays into minimalism (see “Goodbye Dragon Inn”), although the best ones can break through my outer crust of low-attention-span pop-culture barnacles. “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” comes burdened with two additional factors that could also potentially prevent my connecting with it: repetition and child actors. Despite the odds, however, I must admit that I quite liked the film and found myself neither bored nor annoyed.

So what is the film about? It’s about an eight-year-old named Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) who accidentally takes home his friend’s homework notebook. The friend, Mohammad Reda Nematzadeh, is berated by the teacher in the film’s opening and Ahmed knows that if he doesn’t return it the boy will be expelled. Basically the entire film (about 83 minutes) follows Ahmed’s journey to return the notebook before the next day.

Though outwardly simple, the film isn’t empty, an important distinction for such works. Ahmed’s performance really helps to drive the film. His naïve morality makes him instantly likable and the camera’s insistence on participating only within his world grants a limited perspective that is wholly convincing and sympathetic. Ahmed hardly seems to “act” since he talks and behaves in a naturalistic way completely devoid of self-consciousness or staginess. The quietly stirring approach adopted by director and star is at least on the level of Italian neo-realist classics like “The Children Are Watching Us” (1944) and the critically acclaimed Indian film by Satyajit Ray, “Pather Panchali” (1955).

Throughout the film, Ahmed is hindered, punished, misdirected and derailed by adults. The adult world is too caught up in self-importance, rules, punishments and agendas to understand the enormous significance Ahmed places on his appointed task. They view the child as a servant, a trainee or a distraction when they bother to view him at all. Without ever directing any true malice at the boy (safely avoiding melodrama or exaggeration) they impose upon him arbitrary restrictions or treat him as insignificant. The audience can easily identify with him through their memories of being frustrated, confused and neglected simply because we were not old enough to be taken seriously.

An extended conversation between his grandpa and another old man (“Every week my father would give me a penny and every fortnight he would give me a beating. He would sometimes forget the penny, but he never missed a beating.”) perfectly captures the absurdity and arbitrariness of old-world ideas about discipline. I much prefer the personal experience of Ahmed’s journey and the universal themes of generation gap disconnect to the more abstract political readings of the film as a veiled anti-authority statement.

The visual technique is nearly documentary in tone. Except for the schoolroom scenes bookending the film it takes place entirely outdoors. The setting comprises dusty, crumbling old-world alleys in rural villages and the yellow-gray calm of the hillsides in-between. The same locations, and even the same camera positions, are often visited twice or more. Repetition, not with a sense of ritual but merely routine, literally and thematically dominates the film. Ahmed dialogue rarely varies since his pleas require a certain amount of stubbornness and annoyingness simply to get attention. His search is often circular, zigzagged or dead-ended with as much backtracking as exploration. It works because the mood is right and the sense of hope and allegory keep the mind at work when the narrative flow sails into dead water.

As the story consumes time (the word “progresses” is too strong) the changes in light shifts the familiar sites into more desperate shades, a gradual transformation reflected also in the boy’s unassuming face. Just as the film looks like it is reaching an inevitable anticlimax (I mean how many outcomes can there be? He finds the friend’s house or he doesn’t…) the boy joins an old man for a rambling nighttime stroll to the final destination and Ahmed makes a strange choice that adds an element of mystery. The final scene is wonderfully handled, full of just the right amount of tension and poignancy. The last shot is so simple that I found it hard to comprehend how I could be so touched and pleased by it. It ends with a precise abruptness that proves Kiarostami’s slow pacing isn’t for lack of timing sense.

“Where Is the Friend’s Home” is a satisfying film and if watched at a time when the viewer isn’t rushed or antsy, it should be a pleasure for even the jaded. It doesn’t have the sugar-coating or proselytizing that turns me off to so many “heart-warming family gems” and there is a certain alluring formal rigor underneath the laidback realism. It works as a great introduction to the director though it doesn’t match the genius of “A Taste of Cherry.”

Walrus Rating: 7.5


Mad Dog said...

ARE these films in rental stores?

FilmWalrus said...

I saw "A Taste of Cherry" in a really big Hollywood Video one time. I think...